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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


Thrift Store Record Reviews
By James T. Call

I like modern music just fine and I shop in regular record stores. But music shopping in thrift shops is a completely different dimension. I’m astounded by some of this stuff. What kind of people made these records—and why!?

Maybe you got it bad like me. The thrift store record bug. Then you already know what it’s like. When you pull up into an Amvets or a Goodwill, you know right where to go. You navigate unerringly through the aisles of used clothes, obsolete appliances, astonishing and mundane knick-knacks, right to a display case stuffed to overflowing with old records. What was that display case used for originally—30 years ago? Greeting cards? Nylons? Not records! You can only fit a few on each row of shelves steeply tiered like stadium seating. And they always stuff too many in, making it difficult to finger through. Nearby on the floor are boxes and milk crates of records catching the overflow they couldn’t jam into the cases. As you begin to fan through the albums, dust lightly rises to your face. That smell. I’ve browsed thrift store record bins coast to coast and that smell, it’s always the same.

Looking through the stack from the front, hmmm, let’s see…Nutcracker Suite,Perry Como Sings Christmas Songs, Dukes of Dixieland, Randy Newman–Little Criminals, Flash, David Lee Roth, Ray Redd, David Bowie–Changes, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Keith Green, Rush, Best Loved Hymns, Helen Reddy–I Am Woman, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Elsa Lanchester… Elsa Lanchester? She made a record? The title is Songs For A Smoke-Filled Room. And yep, it’s songs and she’s singin’ ’em. Songs with titles like, “Never Go Out Walking Without Your Hatpin,” “If You Peek In My Gazebo,” and “When a Lady Has a Piazza.” It’s 95 cents. I wonder what condition the vinyl is in. It’s okay. Well, all right, I’ll pay a buck to see what this is all about.

And there you go. Not 20 records into the bin and you’ve already found one. Maybe not a great one. But you didn’t pick the record because you thought it was going to be great You picked it because you’ve seen Elsa Lanchester in old movies and she is usually fun, quirky even, and you’re curious. You’re curious what she sounds like singing “Linda and her Londonderry Air.” And you’re not going to find that in Tower Records or Ebay may get you a little closer—but not much. That’s for “collectors.” You’re not looking at records for monetary worth. In fact, if you go to a thrift store looking for rare Beatles singles or James Brown on the Federal label or Howlin’ Wolf on Chess—well, it’s possible, but so is finding a million bucks in a bag by the curb. There are records there that are worth some money, but so few and far in between as to make the effort more costly than the results. No, what you’re looking for you can’t find anywhere else. You’re looking for remarkable recordings that are outside your normal experience. Anthropological timeboxes from Culture Land. Some of them come from a completely alien landscape. Zero cultural frame of reference. Might have been made by pixies as far as you can tell. Others have cultural references more recognizable—but still far enough removed by time and by other barriers to make the view oblique and piquant. Like these:


So, okay, it didn’t turn out to be a great record. As a matter of fact, it’s nearly unlistenable. Elsa (The Bride of Frankenstein) Lanchester sings (caterwauls) in a somewhat Liza Doolittle cockney, ribald (nudge nudge) British pub songs. The wink-and-a-nod salaciousness, too, completely loses meaning in the modern age. At a time when certain words were never spoken in polite society, the need to cleverly veil sexual subjects with oblique double meanings—and why it was amusing to do so—would have been instantly understood. Today that need, James Bond movies notwithstanding, is much more obscure. The kind of straightforwardness we take for granted would have landed you in jail 40 years ago, and Danielle Steele would have been arrested as a vile pornographer.

The degree to which the meanings are obscured and how cleverly veiled the references are on this record makes for an interesting measure of just how much things have changed in this regard. Another odd and interesting thing about this record are the droll introductions to each song by Elsa’s husband, Charles Laughton. Laughton was a consummate actor who could be imperious (Captain Bligh), or abject (Quasimodo), or imperious and abject (Emperor Nero), with equal aplomb. Here he intones aristocratically an explanation or a sly bon mot at the beginning of each ditty. His introduction to the record as a whole at the beginning of side one is an apologia of Elsa’s singing style, and of double entendre in general. In fact, he recites a limerick that addresses the groan factor inherent in double entendre even back then.

There once was a girl of Boulang
Who sang a most popular song
It wasn’t the words
That frightened the birds
But the horrible double entendre


“I’m a lucky girl, that’s who I am. Last year I wrote a book called Sex and the Single Girl (a girlish, gurgling, non-literary kind of thing), which became a best-seller. I didn’t mean to write a best-seller…I mean I didn't write the most sexy, salacious, naughty little book I could think of with the idea that if it is shocking enough it’s bound to sell well.” So writes Helen Gurley Brown in the backside liner notes of this record. At the beginning of the album, she explains that she had “so many things left over to say” that she decided to put out a record, in the way of an addendum, I guess, of advice, “not just to single girls, but to married girls and men.” It turns out to be sort of a “Hints From Heloise” style list of admonitions on “how to have an affair.” Side 1 for men. Side 2 for women.

“How to get a girl to the brink and how to keep her there when you’re not going to marry her" is the title of the first track. Included in this section are gems like, “Never drink up her booze without replacing it.” “Money is a perfectly wonderful present, nor is it half as insulting as you’d like to think. A nice share of General Motors or a U.S. ‘E’ bond tucked in with a bottle of Arpege really are very hard to take offense at.” “Never, never, never let her spend her birthday alone even if you have to lie your way into purgatory to get out of the house.” “Never lie to her about little things. The big lie you are living that someday the two of you are going to be married is going to hard enuff to explain when the time comes.” “Never, never cheat on her with anyone but your wife.” There are hundreds of equally outrageous statements. Then you flip it over.

The first track on the second side offers help with, “Capturing a man if you aren’t pretty.” So it continues for the women, just as sneaky and devious, and just as much fun. This list of adultery do’s-and-don’ts has such a ring of hard-nosed practicality though, that it comes off as some sort of “How To Have An Affair For Dummies” and resonates especially shrill now. Our own time seems positively puritanical next to this compendium of freewheeling advice from the author of a book that was, you have to admit, a major proponent of The Sexual Revolution. Helen sounds like a kind of “anti-Dr. Laura.” I love that.


When Claudine Longet shot and killed her boyfriend, U.S. Olympic ski champion Spider Sabich, in the home they shared among the cocaine and carrot juice cognoscenti of Aspen, Colorado, in 1976, some people said she got away with murder. They say it was the influence of her estranged husband, singer Andy Williams, and his high-powered lawyers that resulted in a ruling of “criminal negligence” and a sentence of only 30 days in the high profile murder case. The circumstances of the shooting, the fact that their relationship had soured—Sabich had told her to move out—and talk of suppressed evidence had skeptics shaking their heads.

Whatever the facts, murder may be more in evidence here on this record. Try it out on a room full of people at your next party. A few might be intrigued, charmed, or even enthusiastic about the whispered, French-accented, faux-little-girl vocal. The rest, however, will run screaming from the room. I know. I’ve done it.

It may not be that whispery vocal that is the most grating thing about this record. Indeed, that vocal style has turned out to be rather durable. It took the Paris Sisters to a top-ten hit as early as 1961. And in the intervening years this style has been employed with varying degrees of success by groups like Mazzy Star, The Cranes and more than a few pop trip hop artists. Morcheeba and Baby Fox employ female vocals that are very breathy and immediate. Techno artist Robert Myles does too. Recently, Mono’s singer, who sang “Life in Mono” on the soundtrack for Great Expectations, is spot on the Longet style.

No,it is not just her sotto voice that will have your party guests congregating in the kitchen and the bathroom. It will be the sugar. It’s sweeter than hard candy. But how does she do it? How does she manage to be so cloying? Maybe it’s the accent. “How een-seen-see-teeve,” she coos to comic effect in “How Insensitive,” one of the most delicate and melancholy songs in pop music. Normally, I find a French accent charming, even sophisticated. But Claudine manages to subvert whatever worldliness is inherent in the inflection. Or maybe it’s the Elmer Fuddisms that occasionally creep into her voice. Her version of the Beatles’ “When I’m 64” is an absolute howl. “When I get oder, gway in my hair, meeny years fwom now, wee-oo you stee-oo be seending me a vow-en-tine…”.

Or maybe it’s simply how absurdly far she carries the little-girlness of the style. On this record she actually covers that Paris Sisters hit, “I Love How You Love Me,” which provides a good comparison for how much higher she ratchets the saccharin in an already syrupy song.

I’m sure you can tell by now, in spite of my gleeful trashing, that I find Longet’s records a lot of fun. This is one of the most ubiquitous records in the thrift store bins. You should be able to find one on your very next peruse. I recommend you grab it. Hell, it’s only a buck.

Behind in your reading?
Check out past ATOMIC features.

Dear Dottie
1999 Article List
2000 Article List
2001 Article List
2002 Article List
2003 Article List
2004 Article List
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